Sebastian Lletget continues to impress LA Galaxy and MLS fans alike. Could he be the “Steal” of the Season?
We know the story. A US-born player rises to the top of his game in the States, is recruited to continue to develop and play in Europe, and returns to the US a few years later. Remember the days when he or she would be seen as a failure? As just good enough to play in the U.S. but not good enough to be selected as one of the few to get playing time in Europe? We still speak about Freddy Adu in hushed tones. Many are still conflicted by the story of Landon Donovan – was he just really good at American soccer but not willing to put in enough effort to compete abroad, or was he more than deserving of the “LegenD” status he retired with? Are internationals of a more mature age coming to the U.S. to be comfortable, and still get time out on the pitch? Does their fitness edge play a role in a longer lifetime in the sport? Could a U.S. developed player ‘retire’ in a European league at the age of 32?
I’ve already made my personal decision on the matter – that, for me, it doesn’t matter, that all the differences country to country only strengthen the overall global game and local fan experience. Take LA Galaxy’s recent aquisitions for example. There’s nothing novel in reminding you that their nuanced game is a notch above most MLS teams, especially now that you see a combination of international skills interplay with the core LA Galaxy fitness. It’s not so much a unique identity or style, but rather the lack of an exact method that makes them interesting for analysts and fans alike. LA Galaxy has come a long way since Bruce Arena said, “We’ve a long way to go. We have played 25 different lineups in 25 games. I don’t know what we’re supposed to envision but it’ll take some time.” That was less than two weeks ago. Keeping the lineup fresh earlier this seaon while many players were on International Duty meant a lot of younger players (Bradford Jamieson IV, Ignacio Maganto, Raul Mendiola to name a few) were able to have their time in the sunlight. It also meant there was a short window of opportunity for them all to make a lasting impression and showcase the potential for LA’s lineup in years to come.
A player’s decision to move between leagues doesn’t always boil down to just money. Obviously, wealthier leagues with richer history have more to spend on a deeper bench and their allure to a younger player craving a challenge is immense. But sometimes it comes down to personal choices – a player wants more time on the pitch, has a strained relationship with their manager or other players, or just wants to come home. Other times, it’s about talent or an inability to cope with the mental game. Some cannot step out of their comfort zone to truly blossom when the timing is just right.
“And then I bid you Freddy Adu/Prodigal child, y’all not ready for the future/Then I disappear in the Bermuda Triangle”– Jay Z, “American Gangster”
When he was 14, Adu was hailed the first homegrown star of American soccer, but failed to find a foothold in Europe, he hasn’t appeared with the U.S. National Team since 2011 and he hasn’t had regular playing time since 2012. At 26, he’s now trying to stage a comeback in the NASL, playing for Tampa Bay Rowdies. Unfortunately, the cautionary tale of Freddy Adu is a black mark on the history of American soccer.
On the opposite of the spectrum lies LA Galaxy’s midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who’s been described as the real steal of the season. Under the shadow of the likes of Steven Gerrard and Gio dos Santos, and even the nostalgic return of Donovan Ricketts, Sebastian doesn’t seem to need any inflated attention. At 22, he’s already had his share of disappointment with his stint at West Ham United. After a promising start in June 2009, when he was scouted for West Ham’s Developmental Academy while at Sporting Santa Clara, he fell out of favor of the new manager after the Gianfranco Zola and Avram Grant eras ended. “Sam Allardyce came in and for four years just didn’t have me in his plans. He always brought in so many players, so it was always difficult for a young player to break in.”The Sun labeled Lletget “a flop” after his only appearance for the Hammers, a 5-0 loss to Nottingham Forest in 2014. But it hasn’t been all downhill for Lletget in the interrum years – he’s made many appearances for the U.S. MNT youth with the U-17’s, U-20’s and U-23’s. As a natural attacking midfielder with a penchant for quick-footedness, he’s a natural fit for the current USMNT roster*, and could fill a much-needed role as a creative and fluid player, akin to one of my favorites on the women’s side, Megan Rapinoe.
Since joining LA in mid-June, the native San Franciscan’s impact was felt from the first game and every game since, adding a new level of complexity and assertiveness in LA’s midfield. “He brought a lot of energy. He has a great combination of speed, power and balance.” – Bruce Arena, July 18th, 2015.
In the past three months, Lleget’s proven to be comfortable with the ball, confident under pressure and is well aware of his and his teammates’ positioning. Combined with a natural physical prowess and fitness, he’s only getting better with each passing day and is hailed as one of the most in-form players in MLS.
Approaching his 23rd birthday next month, Sebastian displays a mental game that belies his years. He’s already had the self-confidence to return to his home state with his head held high and has let his performance dictate the conversation. There’s very little need for overblown hype when you’ve scored 9 goals in 12 appearances and are a regular in the starting lineup.
He calmly explains: “It’s just getting in those positions. I just try to use my brain and see where defenses are, and it’s also the effort to get into the box — even though the balls over there and I’m all the way over here, I’ve got to get in there. It’s just the mentality.” Which we know he’s got in spades.
*Since he has Italian heritage, he is also eligible to play for Italy and, by extension, Argentina.